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Poems for Care of the Soul

"A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us." — Franz Kafka


And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved,

To feel myself beloved on this earth.

Raymond Carver (1938-1988)



Valentine for Ernest Mann

You can't order a poem like you order a taco. 
Walk up to the counter, say, "I'll take two" 
and expect it to be handed back to you 
on a shiny plate. 

Still, I like your spirit. 
Anyone who says, "Here's my address, 
write me a poem," deserves something in reply. 
So I'll tell a secret instead: 
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes, 
they are sleeping. They are the shadows 
drifting across our ceilings the moment 
before we wake up. What we have to do 
is live in a way that lets us find them. 

Once I knew a man who gave his wife 
two skunks for a valentine. 
He couldn't understand why she was crying. 
"I thought they had such beautiful eyes." 
And he was serious. He was a serious man 
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly 
just because the world said so. He really 
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them 
as valentines and they became beautiful. 
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding 
in the eyes of skunks for centuries 
crawled out and curled up at his feet. 

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us 
we find poems. Check your garage, the off sock 
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite. 
And let me know.

Naomi Shihab Nye



the angels have no wings,

they come to you wearing

their own clothes.

they have learned to love you

and will keep coming

unless you insist on wings.

Lucille Clifton (1936-2010)



The Layers

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006)


Love After Love

The time will come 
when, with elation 
you will greet yourself arriving 
at your own door, in your own mirror 
and each will smile at the other's welcome, 

and say, sit here. Eat. 
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart 
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 

all your life, whom you ignored 
for another, who knows you by heart. 
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, 

the photographs, the desperate notes, 
peel your own image from the mirror. 
Sit. Feast on your life. 

Derek Walcott (1930-2017)



The Place Where We Are Right

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

Yehuda Amichai



Only When I Am Quiet and Do Not Speak

Only when I am quiet for a long time
and do not speak
do the objects of my life draw near.

Shy, the scissors and spoons, the blue mug.
Hesitant even the towels,
for all their intimate knowledge and scent of fresh bleach.

How steady their regard as they ponder,
dreaming and waking,
the entrancement of my daily wanderings and tasks.
Drunk on the honey of feelings, the honey of purpose,
they seem to be thinking,
a quiet judgment that glistens between the glass doorknobs.

Yet theirs is not the false reserve
of a scarcely concealed ill-will,
nor that other, active shying: of pelted rocks.

No, not that. For I hear the sigh of happiness
each object gives off
if I glimpse for even an instant the actual instant -

As if they believed it possible
I might join
their circle of simple, passionate thusness,
their hidden rituals of luck and solitude,
the joyous gap in them where appears in us the pronoun I.

Jane Hirshfield

from Given Sugar, Given Salt



Torso of Air

Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than

a portion of night — sealed
with bruises. Suppose you woke

& found your shadow replaced
by a black wolf. The boy, beautiful

& gone. So you take the knife to the wall
instead. You carve & carve

until a coin of light appears
& you get to look in, at last,

on happiness. The eye
staring back from the other side —



Ocean Vuong

from the debut collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds



Horses At Midnight Without a Moon

Our heart wanders lost in the dark woods.
Our dream wrestles in the castle of doubt.
But there is music in us. Hope is pushed down
but the angel flies up again taking us with her.
The summer mornings begin inch by inch
while we sleep, and walk with us later
as long-legged beauty through
the dirty streets. It is no surprise
that danger and suffering surround us.
What astonishes is the singing.
We know the horses are there in the dark
meadow because we can smell them,
can hear them breathing.
Our spirit persists like a man struggling
through the frozen valley
who suddenly smells flowers
and realizes the snow is melting
out of sight on top of the mountain,
knows that spring has begun.

Jack Gilbert (1925-2012)